Mad World

Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
by Paula Byrne
Harper, 384 pp., $25.99

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Evelyn Waugh wanted to serve his country. At 36, he was not exactly in the prime of youth, but with Winston Churchill intervening on his behalf, he was commissioned in the Royal Marines and later transferred to the Commandos. As an officer, he initially enjoyed the easy camaraderie of the mess—though his impudence might occasionally have caused heartburn for his commander. As when he found it imperative to ask a visiting dignitary if it were really true that, in the Romanian Army, no one beneath the rank of major was permitted to wear lipstick.

Waugh was physically fearless. But his participation in some of the foul-ups of the war, notably the evacuation from Crete, soured him on military life, and while recovering from a minor parachute injury at the end of 1943 he was granted leave to write what became Brideshead Revisited. Describing it as his magnum opus, Brideshead was meant by Waugh as an elegy over a way of life that was becoming extinct and supplanted by egalitarian drabness. For him, the country house was the very essence of England; and like his alter ego, Brideshead’s narrator Charles Ryder, who captures these houses in paint before they become deserted and gutted, Waugh saw it his duty to preserve their spirit in print. 

How that novel came to be created is the focus of this elegant study. Desiring to “liberate biography from the shackles of comprehensiveness,” Paula Byrne has chosen to portray Waugh through his connections with one family, the Lygons of Madresfield Court (known familiarly as Mad) in the Malvern Hills, which provided much of the inspiration for Brideshead. In so doing, she provides keen insights into how his imagination operated and explores some of the accusations made against Waugh, particularly his snobbishness.

Evelyn Waugh came from a solid bourgeois background. His father was the managing director of Chapman and Hall, the publishing firm which owned the copyrights to Charles Dickens. Waugh attended Lancing, a second-tier public school, followed by Oxford where, in his third term, he suddenly found himself moving in more rarified circles. At a party he met Harold Acton, the flamboyant leader of the Oxford aesthetes in the early 1920s, and was invited to join the Hypocrites, a club dedicated to boozing and dining. The Hypocrites also had a strong homosexual bent, with Acton and his fellow Etonian Brian Howard setting the tone: Howard with his affected stammer, Acton with his fondness for declaiming the poetry of T. S. Eliot through a megaphone from his window. In manner, dress, and speech they offered a permanent challenge to what they termed “the bourgeois macabre.”

Just as important, Waugh also met Hugh Lygon among the Hypocrites, who became one of the three attachments Waugh formed in his homosexual phase at Oxford. Anthony Powell once described Lygon as “a Giotto angel living in a narcissistic dream,” strolling along High Street with a teddy bear. Back then, Byrne notes, Pembroke, Lygon’s college, was known for catering to the “cream” of Oxford; i.e., “the rich and thick.” 

The Lygon family was at the very apex of British society. Its head, the Earl Beauchamp, was a Knight of the Garter who carried the sword of state at King George V’s coronation. He was a prominent member of the Liberal party and chancellor of the University of London. He was also a rampant homosexual, with a “persistent weakness for footmen.” At Madresfield, Byrne writes, the servants’ hands “were said to be glittering with diamonds.” She quotes Harold Nicolson’s diary about a dinner party, where Nicholson was asked by his dinner companion, “Did I hear Beauchamp whisper to the butler ‘Je t’adore?’ ” 

“Nonsense,” Nicholson replied, “he said ‘shut the door.’ ”

Actually, he hadn’t. When Beauchamp’s children invited male friends to stay, they were encouraged to lock their bedroom doors. The next morning, His Lordship would grouse that “he’s very nice that friend of yours, but he’s damned uncivil.” All this was a well-known secret in aristocratic circles, but when Beauchamp’s behavior during a trip to Australia in 1931 caused a scandal, his brother-in-law the Duke of Westminster and (so circumstances suggest) Buckingham Palace took action. The royal princes had been guests at Madresfield, and Prince George, the future Duke of Kent, had a fling with one of Hugh Lygon’s sisters, Lady Mary. Prince George was what is known as a “problem” royal: an inveterate partygoer who could be seen kicking his top hat down London streets at dawn. Among his mistresses Byrne lists a Kenyan expatriate from the British enclave of “Happy Valley” named Kiki Preston, known as “the girl with the silver syringe,” who kept him supplied with cocaine. Of course, he was bisexual—Noël Coward was one of his lovers—but the royal family could scarcely afford a scandal connecting him to Lord Beauchamp and his merry footmen. The earl was forced to resign his posts and go into exile. 

Into this headless house Evelyn Waugh, now well on his way to becoming a celebrated novelist, was invited as a guest that same year. With the Beauchamp children, especially Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, he formed a close bond, with its very own coded language. “The accumulation of common experiences, private jokes, and private language lies at the foundation of English friendship,” wrote Waugh. His role at Madresfield was court jester: “They loved a man who was willing to say the unsayable,” writes Byrne. 

According to Byrne, Brideshead Revisited offers a toned-down, compressed version of Waugh’s own story and the Lygon saga. The Oxford sections are generally regarded as among the best ever written about the place, and the dreaming spires, pealing church bells, exquisite meals, and golden paradise of youth, though dripping with decadence, are tastefully done and extremely funny. In Anthony Blanche, a composite of Acton and Howard, Waugh created one of his great comic characters. The affair between Ryder and Sebastian is handled, more or less, with discretion. 

Of course, the reality was more sordid. Byrne offers a catalogue of drunken debauchery and sexual depravity, with dons such as Maurice Bowra acting as go-betweens and arrangers for student liaisons. After the Oxford passages in Brideshead, the tone darkens: Retaining its sumptuous descriptions of exotic locales in Venice and Morocco, the novel becomes a religious drama of redemption though suffering and dissolution. In his downward spiral Sebastian Flyte (whose name is no coincidence) achieves a kind of sainthood, his sister Julia gives up marrying Charles Ryder to atone for her sins, and Lord Marchmain has his deathbed conversion. God allows his creatures to stray, Waugh suggests, but reels them back in at the end. 

Here, too, the raw material was cleaned up. The homosexuality of the Earl Beauchamp, whom Waugh met in Rome in 1932, was no doubt a little too rich to make it into the novel. Instead, in the Brideshead version, Lord Marchmain becomes an outcast because of a liaison with a mistress. The family saga did not end happily. Hugh Lygon descended into a Sebastian-like spiral—his turns as a bank official, car salesman, and horse trainer all failed—and he died at 31, fracturing his skull in a drunken stupor. When Earl Beauchamp died, his eldest son inherited Madresfield Court, which meant that the sisters had to move out. Tainted by scandal, they never married into the British aristocracy: Lady Mary, who provided much of the inspiration for Julia, married a penniless Russian prince in exile and became an alcoholic, supported discreetly by Waugh. Lady Dorothy—Cordelia in Brideshead—became an archivist at Christie’s, handling her changed circumstances with dignity and good humor. Even Evelyn Waugh, in many respects, became a caricature of himself as country squire and professional reactionary. 

And yet, as Byrne points out, he had a sharper eye than that: Sebastian Flyte is a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, and is deeply self-destructive. The hearty members of the Bullingdon Club are described as bullies and barbarians, savages in dark blue tailcoats. As for his Roman Catholicism, as Waugh liked to point out, in Britain Catholics tend to be found among the poor, not the rich. Writing about Brideshead in the late 1950s, he admitted that it was “infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now .  .  . I find distasteful.”

As for the place itself, Madresfield Court is a mixture of Tudor and Victorian Gothic. In Brideshead, the house is neo-Palladian, which explains the use of Castle Howard in the BBC series of the early 1980s; but unlike the fictional Brideshead, Madresfield was not requisitioned by the army during World War II because it was designated for the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in case of emergency. They never had to seek refuge there.

Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.